Hard Work vs. Martyrdom: Physicians Beware!

I’ve come across many hard-working people in my professional life. I’ve also known my fair share of devoted martyrs. Martyrs rarely inspire, instead they immerse others in their self-sacrifice. Despite their dedication, joy struggles to permeate their self-denial.

What is the Martyr Complex?

Although, some individuals may be more prone to martyrdom than others, it represents a potential hazard for all of us and particularly for those of us in healthcare. Ironically, the martyr complex can be very similar to a victim mentality, though on the surface they may appear very different. Both need the involvement of others. Victims need acknowledgment that their lives are full of miserable events that are out of their control and that they have no agency to change things. A martyr on the other hand ends up victimizing themselves in the service of others. They often have noble motives and work in environments that encourage self-sacrifice, value silent endurance and pay lip-service to self-care. An environment that tacitly both generates and supports a martyr mentality. Anyone who works in the healthcare professions is familiar with these dynamics. Perversely in medicine, the slippery slope towards burnout is initially obscured by a culture that lauds the sacrificial “hero.” The boundaries between clear-cut hard work and “martyrdom” get completely blurred, with the latter setting an enticing, yet destructive standard. 

How to Overcome/Prevent a Martyr Complex

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Sustainability of career is a commonsense goal in medicine. Unfortunately, a martyr complex mindset ultimately sabotages the resilience that is needed to create longevity in a career. Yes, practicing medicine requires dedication, self-sacrifice and hard work, but these need to be part of a whole framework that recognizes the parameters that define a healthy relationship to work. Otherwise, in the case of physicians, the outcomes of continued martyrdom can be burnout, moving out of clinical medicine, leaving medicine altogether, and even worse suicide. 

Just like we would prefer and recommend that our patients practice preventive care, cultivating the following skills are some of the ways that we can build a healthy, non-martyr mindset:

  • Define very clearly what your goals for your work are and why you are working towards them.
  • Ask yourself what are your needs in order function at your best in your work. Learn how to express these clearly and directly. Also, be sure to listen to the needs of others.
  • Understand that saying “no” is neither negative nor shameful, but simply a respectful acknowledgment that prioritization of your time and energy are all part of skilled professional decision-making.
  • Cultivate bringing an open mind to challenging situations, so that you are able to create perspective and remind yourself that you have options as to how you manage yourself and the situation.


Healthy, effective self-leadership and martyrdom are mutually exclusive.

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